This reflection was written by ABCUSA Stewardship Facilitator Rev. Stacy Emerson. See part one of this series, here.
2 Corinthians 8:1-15
In Paul’s letter to the church he had begun in the city, the multicultural metropolis, of Corinth, it had been a year since Paul had last been with the Corinthians and he is following up with them in his letter on several important topics, including the “collection for the saints” in the church in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where it all began, we remember, and the church was struggling there with the strife of the city under Roman rule and was an impoverished church, so Paul had been spending time urging other churches to take care of poorer churches, and he reaches out to the Corinthians, who had a year ago promised to participate in the collection but had not yet finished their task.
He writes the Corinthians and reminds them of their promise by talking to them first about the example of the churches in Macedonia. Paul has a fond spot for the Macedonians whom he mentions 16 times in all his letters. Macedonia is an interesting region, a wealthy region since a major east-west trade route called the Via Egnatia ran right through it. Although the area enjoyed prosperity, the Macedonians were poor and had undergone some kind of trial or persecution that added to their suffering. Yet, when they heard of the opportunity to help the beleaguered church in Jerusalem, they responded abundantly and with a deep passion. And in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wanted the church in that city to understand a few things about the nature of generosity.
Generosity is about a willing spirit. Paul writes that during their affliction the Macedonians voluntarily gave “according to their means and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry.” Their generosity was not the product of mind games, cajoling, arm bending, or savvy marketing practices. Paul did not show up with a power point presentation, lining out a strategy for the growth of their investment. He presented them with a need found somewhere else. He did not deny their own need—Paul did not even want to put a burden on an already burdened community, but they pleaded with him to get involved. Which has to make us ask, why? Why when your own resources are limited would you want to offer up what you do have to someone else?
Generosity is a “grace” according to the Macedonians and to Paul. Paul argues that the desire to give arises out of the remembering and recognition and honoring of what God has done for people’s lives. He says, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” At the heart of generosity is an appreciation of all that has been done for us, and so of all that we have to share. This great love of God’s we know is made manifest in sharing it with others. And the Macedonians saw it as an honor and a privilege to reach out in the world for Christ’s sake. They wanted to be a part of Paul’s ministry because they deemed it a privilege to do so.
And this idea of generosity as a “grace” to be shared, as a privilege, was evident so uniquely in the Macedonians who gave beyond what was expected or even reasonable. It was reasonable to expect that they would not be generous, not out of some moral lacking, but simply because they themselves were suffering and poor. But they surprised Paul with their desire and passion and so they taught something crucial about the profound nature of generosity, which is to say that even affliction and suffering do not affect one’s desire to be generous. In fact, the Macedonians exemplify quite the opposite. Here were a people with such a faith as to see what God had blessed them with, and blessed them abundantly, even in their affliction, such that their yearning to help overrode their sense of preservation.
Generosity doesn’t weigh the protection of self over and against the thought to help someone else. Generosity is about striving for a balance. It isn’t irresponsible, let’s be clear, so that someone gives to the point of becoming in need themselves, but, generosity does hold onto a larger perspective in its effort. Generosity feels and senses where there is an inequality and yearns to make things fairer. And so Paul reminds the Corinthians, “it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that their may be a fair balance. As it is written, “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
So, how in the world did the Macedonians muster such grace and generosity to go and plead for Paul to take their share in the collection and bring it to Jerusalem, to people they didn’t even know, to try and work for a balance for everyone not just in their own families and community? We can search for understanding and rationale and make a case for generosity based on moral codes and even implore to just do the right thing. But as I worked with this text, if you want to understand where generosity comes from, you have to understand where yearning comes from. And Paul says simply this, “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then, by the will of God, to us…” It’s not complicated. They gave themselves to God first. Once you have done that, chances are God will put a yearning in your heart to affect the world in some way for God’s sake, to be generous for the reasons God inspires, not just to feel good or to do what is socially responsible. Paul’s collection was more than an offering. It was to help enable the salvific, healing, graceful, powerful, transforming work of God in the world. Give yourself first, all of it—your gifts and your mistakes, your wealth and your poverty, your courageous intentions and your waning energy—and intentionally set yourself into the stream of God’s grace and mercy, and see where God takes you. God wants what we all long for—that we would know ourselves to be loved and valued, that our lives lived on God’s green earth would mean something to someone. And generosity of spirit makes it happen. Giving ourselves to God and giving of our time and gifts and resources in response to needs for help is how our lives find purpose and meaning, by helping to bring God’s vision to reality in and around us.
Generosity isn’t about grand displays and outdoing ourselves, just about sharing in the labor. It’s like the man on the beach spending his morning throwing starfish back into the sea. A visitor sees him and inquires what he is doing, and doesn’t he realize that there are millions of starfish on the beach, does he truly think he can make a difference? And picking up one more and tossing it in the waves, the man replies, “It made a difference to that one.” Or it is like the sparrow who heard from Chicken Little that the sky was falling and the Rooster comes to find him flat on his back with his feet in the air. “What are you doing?” exclaims the Rooster, “do you think a little twerp like you can hold back the sky?” And the sparrow responds, “One does what one can.”
We have all been blessed with some way to make a difference, I am convinced of it. Together we have a ministry among us to discern those gifts, to find strength in our collective partnership, and to share them with a generosity of spirit. That is our challenge, and my challenge, and my wish for us is this, our ABC churches, is that with courage and wisdom, risk and even a bit of foolishness, we would do what we can to make a difference or just hold back the sky.
~Rev. Stacy Emerson
Stewardship Facilitator, Mission Resource Development
American Baptist Churches USA